Select Page

I was reading a great book on evolution recently, and I was amazed by the evolution of wolves and how we now have dogs.

Wolves evolved from a common ancestor of the Canidae family around 4-5 million years ago. They were originally small, forest-dwelling creatures but gradually evolved into larger, more versatile animals. Wolves eventually diverged into different subspecies, including gray and red wolves. They spread worldwide, and the environment and human interactions shaped their evolution.

Please read on if you want to know more about their amazing evolution.

Do you know what is in a wolf’s diet? Find out here

The Evolution Of The Wolf

Around forty million years ago, the super-family Carnivoramorpha split into two groups: feliforms and caniforms. Wolves are descendants of these earliest caniforms, including the ancestors of foxes (Vulpes) and canines (Leptocyon.)

Other canines also emerged, including Eucyon, a jackal-sized animal in North America, and the coyote-like Eucyon davisi. Next came the early Canis, the ancestor of modern wolves, dogs, and coyotes, followed by the Canis lepophagus.

Canis lepophagus is essential to the evolutionary history of ancient wolves as its lineage is thought to lead to two species: coyotes and wolves.

Canis chihiensis was wolf-sized and quickly became the most dominant predator, appearing about three to four million years ago.  

It is not clear where canids originated, with some researchers believing that they spread to Asia and South America from North America. Other scientists think they came from Asia and spread throughout the world. Some also consider that canids migrated to Asia from North America before returning.

Sometime around sixty million years ago, the first ancestors of modern wolves appeared. These ancestors had developed into two separate families approximately twenty million years ago.

These two families that branched out became what we now know as canines and felines, or the families of dogs and cats.  

It is believed that the first canids evolved from a common ancestor two to three million years ago. Two of these were the gray wolf and the dire wolf. The dire wolf (Canis dirus) lived alongside the gray wolf (Canis lupus) for approximately three hundred to four hundred thousand years.

Dire wolves and gray wolves are believed to have migrated from Asia to North America in the Pleistocene period. Dire wolfs became extinct around seven thousand years ago due to climate change wiping out their prey.  

New Mexico has an important archaeological site where many bones have been found. Researchers have found evidence of wolf and human remains in Sandia Cave, Las Huertas Canyon. The bones of wolves at the archaeological site have been dated back about ten thousand years old.

The Museum of Natural History analyzed DNA that showed that dire wolves are only distant cousins of modern grey wolves.

For information on what wolves eat, I have written this article.

Wolf in snow

Pleistocene Wolf

The Pleistocene wolf, also known as the Late Pleistocene wolf, is an extinct form of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). It was around from 129 Ka-11 Ka in the Late Pleistocene period and was a hypercarnivore. It was comparable in size to a present-day grey wolf but had a shorter, broader skull with larger carnassial teeth in comparison to its general cranial size. Wolf remains show that wolves got bigger during the Late Pleistocene, possibly due to larger prey. As their prey got larger, so did the wolves.

Evolution Of Wolves To Dogs

Although wolves are still around, evolution has not passed them by, with the descendants of wolves being domestic dogs.

The binomial name for domestic dogs is Canis lupus familiaris. It is believed that wolves became less fearful of humans due to their dependence on them for food, hanging around settlements to feed on garbage. As they became less scared of humans, they were trained and domesticated.  

Due to the discovery of remains, it is believed that wolves in Europe were domesticated around sixteen thousand years ago and in Asia fourteen thousand years ago. However, as with today, many wolves were domestic and wild. Genome and DNA analysis from 1997 suggests this occurred about 130,000 years ago.

All breeds of dogs now share their ancestry with wolves, although interbreeding has them in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Dogs were bred for different jobs and different climates, but this has led to some problems.

Ever wondered why there are so many dog breeds? You can find out in this article I have written here.

Disease and health problems due to interbreeding cause many dogs to have problems throughout life. Breathing difficulties, blindness, heart defects, skin problems, deafness, and hip dysplasia are problems caused by interbreeding.

Shorter muzzles, smaller breeds, and teeth are some differences from gray wolves. While some species, such as the Alaskan Malamute, have maintained a similarity between the wolf and dogs, others, such as the pug, are very different.

If you want to know if wolves have been in your yard, I have written an article to help you.


Wolves Of North America

Throughout history, biologists have separated gray wolves into many subspecies, with as many as thirty-two at one point. Of these, twenty-four had been identified among North American wolves.

Most of these two to three dozen subspecies were associated with the regions and habitats in which they lived.  

Do you know why wolves howl?  Find out here

Subspecies Of Wolves

  • Kenai Peninsula Wolf (Canis lupus alces)
  • High Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)
  • Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
  • Newfoundland Wolf (Canis lupus beothucus)
  • Victoria Islands Wolf (Canis lupus Bernardi)
  • Yukon Wolf (Canis lupus columbianus)
  • Vancouver Island Wolf (Canis lupus crassodon)
  • Cascade Mountains Wolf (Canis lupus fuscus)
  • Alberta Wolf (Canis lupus griseoalbus)
  • Manitoba Wolf (Canis lupus hudsconicus)
  • Rocky Mountains Wolf (Canis lupus irremotus)
  • Labrador Wolf (Canis lupus labradorius)
  • Arctic Islands Wolf (Canis lupus ligoni)
  • Eastern Timber Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon)
  • Northwest Territories Wolf (Canis lupus Mackenzii)
  • Baffin Island Wolf (Canis lupus manningi)
  • New Mexico Wolf (Canis lupus mogollonensis)
  • Texas Wolf (Canis lupus monstrabilis)
  • Great Plains Wolf (Canis lupus nubilus)
  • Mackenzie Valley Wolf (Canis lupus occidetalis)
  • Greenland Wolf (Canis lupus orion)
  • Yukon Wolf (Canis lupus pambasileus)
  • Arctic Tundra Wolf (Canis lupus tundrarum)
  • Rocky Mountain Wolf (Canis lupus youngi)

Have you ever wondered why wolves howl? You can find the many reasons in this article I have written here.

Some of these subspecies are now extinct, and in 1992 at the North American Symposium on Wolves, the number of species was suggested to be reduced to just five.

Due to an increase in genetics knowledge and wolf behavior, zoologists realized that most of the above subspecies were not distinct subspecies from one another.

The five subspecies recognized at the North American Symposium on Wolves are as follows:

  • Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
  • Eastern Wolf (Canis lupus lyycaon)
  • Great Plains Wolf (Canis lupus nubiles)
  • Northwestern Wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis)
  • Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)

I have written a complete guide on gray wolves, which you can find here.


In Eurasia, there are currently fifteen species of wolves.

  • Tundra Wolf (Canis lupus albus)
  • Arabian Wolf (Canis lupus Arabs)
  • Steppe Wolf (Canis lupus campestris)
  • Russian Wolf (Canis lupus communes)
  • Mongolian Wolf (Canis lupus chanco)
  • Caspian Sea Wolf (Canis lupus cubanensis)
  • Iberian Wolf (Canis lupus tetanus)
  • Asian Desert Wolf (Canis lupus desertorum)
  • Hokkaido Wolf (Canis lupus hattai)
  • Japanese Wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax)
  • Italian Wolf (Canis lupus Italicus)
  • Eurasian Wolf (Canis lupus lupus)
  • Austro-Hungarian Wolf (Canis lupus minor)
  • Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes)
  • Iberian Wolf (Canis lupus signatus)

Red Wolf

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is a wolf that some biologists believe is a subspecies of the gray wolf, and others believe it is a genuinely separate wolf species.  

In 2016, a study was published by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) following genetic tests on red wolves.

The study by UCLA found that the red wolf is not an alternative species. The red wolf is a hybrid caused by the crossbreeding of gray wolves and coyotes.

Although this study seems to be conclusive that red wolves are not a distinct species, most biologists believe that the red wolf is a separate species but that the species has been watered-down by interbreeding over time with coyotes.

There were three subspecies of red wolves, but all are now extinct in the wild. By 1980, all red wolves in the wild had disappeared, even after they were put on the endangered species list in 1973.  

Many thought this would be the end of the red wolf, but fourteen red wolves had been captured earlier. These captured wolves were picked based on their lack of coyote attributes and behavior.  

These pure red wolves have bred, and red wolves have now been reintroduced into the wild in South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee. There are currently a few hundred red wolves in the wild, leading to a healthy population of wolves.

Do you know why wolves howl?  Find out here

References and Further Reading

“The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” by L. David Mech

“Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation” by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani

“The Evolution of Wolves: From Hunting to Domestication” by Wolf Clifton

“The Wolf: A Species in Danger” by Jacques Barzun

“The Wolf in the Southwest: The Making of an Endangered Species” by Harley Shaw

“Wolves: Biology, Behavior and Conservation” by David Mech and Luigi Boitani

“The Wolf: A Complete Guide to the Natural History of the Wolf” by David W. Macdonald

“The Wolf: A History of the Wild Wolf in North America” by R.D. Lawrence

“The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species” by L. David Mech

“The Wolf: A History of the Wild Wolf in North America” by R.D. Lawrence

“The Wolf in the Wilderness: The Origins and Ecology of the Gray Wolf” by James Halfpenny

“Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation” by L. David Mech, Luigi Boitani, and David W. Smith

“The Wolf: A Natural History of the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator” by Michael J. Runtz